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The Roman house

The Roman empire covered such a vast geographical area and lasted such a long time that the range of housing was correspondingly varied. However, in Italy two main types of housing emerge from the literary sources and from archaeological remains in cities such as Pompeii, Ostia and Rome itself.

The mass of the urban populace lived in high rise tenement blocks, called insulae, often of four or five storeys and grouped around a central courtyard. The apartments of the poorest families might consist of just one or two rooms, with essential services such as cooking and bathing provided at communal facilities outside the insulae. The insulae were often hastily and shoddily built and were terrible fire-hazards, though some emperors tried to pass laws restricting the number of storeys and regulating materials used.

Wealthier Romans generally lived in single occupancy, low-rise dwellings of one or two storeys. Although varied in plan these houses usually comprised an entrance area or atrium, onto which opened several rooms, including bedrooms. Beyond the atrium was an open, colonnaded courtyard, often containing an ornamental garden with plants, water features and sculpture. Rooms opening onto the courtyard included the triclinium (literally 'three couches') or dining room, and tablinum or office/records room. Beyond these were service areas such as the kitchen, store rooms and toilets. Well-appointed houses were decorated with mosaic floors, painted walls and ceilings, and bronze and marble statuary of gods and ancestors.

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